Why Finding a Bargain Makes Your Brain Feel Good

Intermittent reinforcement keeps you on the hunt

Why Finding a Bargain Makes Your Brain Feel Good

We’ve all felt it – the rush that you get when you feel as though you got a really good bargain while shopping. Why does that happen?

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Psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, says it’s all about intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is when you are rewarded inconsistently and occasionally. This usually encourages you to keep trying until you get what you want – like a designer purse at a great price.

“To understand that thrill of getting a really good bargain, we have to understand what’s going on in the human brain,” Dr. Bea says.

“It’s like you’re panning for gold — you have to sift through a lot of stuff to find the gold. Then, when you find the gold, it sets off the reward centers of your brain that makes you more likely to repeat the search.”

RELATED: Is It Retail Therapy? Or Do You Have a Shopping Compulsion?

The thrill of the hunt

Many die-hard shoppers say they love the thrill of the hunt. That’s not too far from the truth, Dr. Bea says.

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Anticipation of a reward releases dopamine, which are feel-good chemicals that transmit signals between the brain’s nerve cells, in the parts of the brain that keep you focused on gaining a prize. Finding a bargain ends the reward process. And so the bargain hunt begins anew to keep the good feelings going.

“There’s a little bit of a gambling kind of thing going because we are not going to be delighted every time we go out,” Dr. Bea says. “But every now and again, finding a bargain is going to reinforce that effort.”

RELATED: 7 Tips to Kick Bad Habits for Good

Signs of trouble

Check in with your emotions and your goals when you’re bargain-hunting, Dr. Bea says. If you use shopping to make yourself feel better, often buy things you don’t need or later regret, can’t pay down your credit cards, or can’t resist going to the store, you may be among the 7 percent of Americans who are compulsive shoppers.

“You’ll always want to pay attention, what does shopping do to my brain? And can I do this in ways that are healthy, helpful and engaging and do not cost me or get me in trouble somehow,” Dr. Bea says.

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Some of the signs?

“When you’re too dedicated to it, when other parts of your life are going by the wayside. When it feels like that’s the only thing that really gives you delight or when your closet is way too full, you have way too much stuff coming in and not nearly enough stuff going out,” Dr. Bea says.

This often is how hoarders get in trouble, Dr. Bea says. They accumulate too many things and can’t decide what to get rid of. Sometimes they shop for bargains but they never use the things that they got for a steal.

“I’ve run into plenty of people who have stacks and stacks of new stuff they bought because it was a bargain. But they’ve never opened it. They never really had a real use for it,” Dr. Bea says. “So make sure if you’re shopping for a bargain, that it’s something that you’re really going to use.”

More information
Brain health treatment guide

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